The Hippo


Oct 14, 2019








Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies (PG-13)
Film reviews by Amy Diaz

By Amy Diaz

Tom Hanks stars in Bridge of Spies, a mix of Cold War legal drama and Cold War thriller from director Steven Spielberg. 

Tom Hanks + Steven Spielberg? I’m pretty sure they’re putting names on Oscars already.
Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is picked up by the FBI and charged with being a Soviet spy. A man with a British accent and ties to Russia, Abel is shown as saying nearly nothing in his own defense and refusing to cooperate in any way with American intelligence officials. (I have a general sense of the U2 spy plane incident but basically I’m going on the movie’s version of history for purposes of this review.)
Wanting to show the world that everybody gets a fair trial in America, the American Bar Association picks James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to represent Abel. Though working primarily on insurance matters when we first meet him, Donovan is said to have worked on the Nuremberg trials. Though everyone — his law partner (Alan Alda), the judge, the FBI officials, a CIA agent who follows him around — wants Donovan to pursue fairly but without a lot of vigor his representation of Abel, Donovan mounts a serious defense, attempting to get evidence thrown out because of lack of search warrant and rebuffing attempts to get him to pass along privileged information to the CIA. Donovan eventually takes pieces of Abel’s case all the way to the Supreme Court, to the detriment of his own career and his family’s safety during this most heated age of Red Scare.
Meanwhile, the Air Force and CIA are beginning the use of U2 spy planes. The long-winged planes could fly at extremely high altitudes but still take detailed photos of the ground (and Soviet military installations, etc.) below. The pilots flying the planes are told that if something goes wrong they are to blow up the planes and, if capture seems likely, do themselves in as well so that neither the technology in the plane nor the information in their heads winds up in Soviet hands. When Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down, he does neither, and both the pieces of the plane and himself are captured. 
Despite the hang-’em-high attitudes of many Americans at the time when it came to the issue of Soviet spies, Donovan — at least as the movie shows it — is able to talk the judge in Abel’s case into giving him merely an extended prison term instead of the electric chair. What if, Donovan argues in an off-the-books meeting with the judge, one day we need to use Abel as a bargaining chip to get one of our guys back?
Perhaps it is this foresight, along with his general even-handedness, that gets Donovan summoned by Allan Dulles (Peter McRobbie), head of the CIA. Overtures from the Soviets — or maybe the East Germans or maybe the Soviets by way of East Germany — seem to indicate that they are interested in trading Powers for Abel. The U.S. government wants no official part of such a trade, though they do want a trade to happen and send Donovan to Berlin in hopes that he can bring Powers home.
Also meanwhile, American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) gets stuck on the Soviet side of the Berlin wall. They — though exactly who “they” is seems in some question — are holding him as a suspected spy. Though the U.S. government is only after Powers, Donovan, moved by Pryor’s youth and the violence he sees in Berlin, tries to maneuver the deal to include Pryor in the trade as well. 
OK, sure, you have a movie from Spielberg starring Hanks so you’re going to get some moments of heavy-handedness. The cross cuts that mix scenes of Donovan’s elementary school kids watching duck-and-cover safety videos in with the spy stuff are not the most subtle things ever. Nor are the scenes of Donovan arguing before the Supreme Court (cue the liberty speech!) or a scene of people on a Berlin train watching an attempted wall crossing. But both actor and director do this stuff so well it’s actually hard to fault it. Yes, there are a lot of bad hot dogs out there. But when the master of hot dogs makes a nearly perfect hot dog, you can’t blame it for all the cruddy versions that exist.
And Spielberg really is a master. He knits events that happen across several years and in different storylines together into one narrative that feels neither rushed nor drawn out. And as much of a quiet hero as he makes Donovan, he never turns him into a saint, never tips over into the cheesiness that I suspect would accompany, say, the Aaron Sorkin version of this story.
Also helping to keep Donovan grounded is Hanks. He is also a master, a master at making ordinary people seem layered and fascinating and at being Tom Hanks while still being James Donovan too. Hanks will never be a character actor who dissolves into a role — he’s just too Tom Hanks for that — but he still makes James Donovan a singular person and not just a variation on previous Hanks roles.
Of course, as good as Hanks is, Rylance is better. Rylance, who I know from his excellent performance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall (watch it now!), does dissolve into his part. Abel says very little, does very little. But Rylance makes Abel’s every move a note on who this man is. Even if the rest of the movie fell flat, it would be worth it for Rylance’s performance alone.
But Bridge of Spies does not fall flat. It is a solid work of historical drama, with just the right amount of thrills and indirect commentary on the world of today as well as the top-notch storytelling technique (cinematography, editing, scoring) you expect from a Spielberg movie. A-
Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language. Directed by Steven Spielberg and Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, Bridge of Spies is two hours and 21 minutes long and distributed by Dreamworks.

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